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Big Issue: Energy crisis hitting home

When oil topped $100 a barrel earlier this year, and gasoline prices soared above $4 a gallon, Americans cried out for relief.
/ Source: The Associated Press


When oil topped $100 a barrel earlier this year, and gasoline prices soared above $4 a gallon, Americans cried out for relief.

Some called for more offshore oil drilling. Others pushed for the development of alternative fuels. And many made energy policy a top priority as they consider the presidential campaign.

In an Associated Press-Yahoo News survey of voters taken early in September, 77 percent said gas prices were an important or extremely important issue. Only the economy ranked significantly higher.

"Up until the past year, the issue of energy and energy prices wasn't very high on the radar of the American consumer," said David Conover, counsel to the private National Commission on Energy Policy, a bipartisan group of leading energy experts. "But today, if you talk to a member of Congress, when they go back home and they have town hall meetings, everyone is talking about gas prices."

Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama, in turn, have responded with plenty of proposals to ease the high costs of energy, promote energy independence and protect the environment.

"If you look at the platforms of the candidates, you'll see very few differences," Conover said. "The differences that exist are important, but you'll see very few differences on some of the fundamental issues."

While high energy costs have certainly hurt consumers, Conover said the price increases also provide an opportunity for the proliferation of cleaner technologies, like wind and solar, which become more attractive options when gas costs $4 a gallon than when it costs $2.

But widespread use of some alternative energy sources still is years away, and many Americans say they need energy relief now.

A look at what some are doing to combat rising energy costs and protect the planet:


DANA BOLYARD, 36, Murphy, N.C.

Bolyard knows she can't change the country's policies on offshore drilling or spur on the development of alternative fuels.

But at her home in rural North Carolina, Bolyard does what she can. Glass, cardboard and plastics are sorted into recycling bins; clothes dry on a line, not in the dryer; and produce is either grown in her organic garden or bought locally.

"It takes a commitment, but it's not any harder," Bolyard said. "It doesn't take any more of your time."

Bolyard wasn't always an environmentalist; her world view changed after having two daughters.

"I've got to leave the planet in good hands for my children," she said. "We have to be good stewards of the earth."

A former prosecutor who now runs a small business that makes soap and other natural products, Bolyard said energy and the environment are her top issues in the presidential election. She plans to vote for Obama.

"I feel like he's thought about it," Bolyard said. "He's not just giving it lip service."


LISA ROSSLAND, 49, Republic, Michigan

It's a 45-mile commute from Rossland's home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the Wal-Mart where she works in the cosmetics department.

When gas prices started to rise last year, Rossland started carpooling to work with her husband, Andy Rossland, who works at a nearby prison.

Gas continues to hover near $4 a gallon in the Upper Peninsula. At that price, Rossland said even carpooling can only help so much. Lately, she's started driving slower — never faster than 60 miles an hour — in hopes of stretching a tank of gas even farther. This winter, she'll heat her home with a wood-pellet stove to save on energy costs.

"We have maybe $250 to make it through two weeks, and we still have to buy the gas," she said. "Financially, it's tight."

Rossland, a registered Democrat, is undecided in the presidential race. For the first time in her life, Rossland said, she may go to the polls and not know who she'll pull the lever for.

"I just hope that someone that does take over can bring us back at least to where we were a few years ago," she said. "I know there will be rough times. But I think these are rough times."



By 7 a.m., the sun is barely up, but the parking lot off Route 60 in Virginia's New Kent County is nearly full. Among the drivers pulling in is Southworth.

Since July, Southworth has been parking her car here and climbing aboard a vanpool, a ride-sharing program run by a private company in Richmond.

Before joining the vanpool, Southworth's commute was 150 miles a week. Now she shares that ride with 14 other people in the van.

"The commute takes a little bit longer because you have to stop and let other people off," she said. "But there's no going back now."

Southworth's employer — the Virginia Department of Transportation — subsidizes the cost of the vanpool. And Southworth is saving money on car insurance, parking and wear-and-tear on her car.

Southworth said gas prices have come down in Virginia since she started using the vanpool in July, but she doesn't see herself going back to her solo commute any time soon.

A registered independent, Southworth plans to vote for Obama. When it comes to energy policy, Southworth has one simple request of the next president.

"I don't want prices to get any higher," she said.


JOHN CROXTON, 54, Knoxville, Tenn.

Energy might be a new priority for many Americans, but not for Croxton.

Life changed for Croxton 20 years ago. He walked outside one morning, and found that all three of his vehicles were broken down. So Croxton jumped on his bike, and has been pedaling to work ever since.

"It's really changed my world view," he said. "You see things in a different light when you travel at a more human pace."

There are more bikers on the road now that gas prices are higher, Croxton said. He's pushing for more bicycle lanes on Knoxville's streets and more greenways to connect the city for people on two wheels.

Croxton also participates in a program run by the Knoxville Utilities Board's Green Power program, which gives customers the option to purchase energy from renewable sources, like wind and solar.

"As a person of average income, we can't afford solar panels, we can't afford to start generating our own power," he said. "By virtue of this program, for only $32 a month, we can make sure that we've got renewable power."

A Green Party member, Croxton said the environment is the most important issue to him in nearly every election. He declined to say who he'll vote for on Election Day.